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Sunday, March 20, 2022 - 05:48

A dusty old shoebox in a charity shop in Pinetown. No-one knows how long it had been lying there and no-one knows who brought it in. A staff member working there found it whilst tidying up and opened the box to see what was inside. “Look at this”, she said to the ladies managing the shop, “this box is full of old photographs with names on the back”.

Neither of the ladies were much interested in genealogy, but both agreed that the contents of this box looked quite special and should, if possible, be reunited with its family, or, failing that, go intact to a collector who would appreciate it. But how to go about it?

They posted a few of the photographs on the shop’s Facebook page, which was shared to several Genealogy groups. Although causing a fair number of comments, no-one among the large groups of members seemed to have any connection to the family. Passing through Pinetown and having an interest in genealogy and old photographs, my husband and I stopped at the charity shop on the off-chance that the photographs might still be there. We were hoping, at best, to find a few nice old photographs as seen on the Facebook post, but were completely taken aback at what we found - a whole box of the most beautiful Cabinet Cards and Cartes de Visite, most of which were identified by name, as well as some handwritten notes and a diary.


Some of the Calkin Chapman collection


There was no doubt that this was an impressive collection and, being members of various groups and having access to several genealogy websites, we agreed to assist the ladies in trying to find family members by researching the names on the photographs.

As we sorted through the 100 or so old photographs and read the notes, it became clear that this collection had belonged to someone called Kate Fosler Chapman (born Calkin, later Seller). The notes are dated three years before Kate’s death and although there can be no doubt they are her memories, it appears they were actually written by someone else – her daughter, Barbara, perhaps, with whom she was living.

We made contact with a distant relative in England who had created a very comprehensive Calkin family website, which we had found on a Google search. Although he was unable to assist us in locating any of Kate’s descendants, he was happy for us to use his website as a means of gathering information on the Calkin family and that’s where we found a delightful letter dated 10 June 1866 that Kate’s father, Ellis Varnam Calkin, had penned to his Aunt Sarah in England.

In the hope of finding others researching the family as well as trying to work out who was who in the box we started loading Kate’s family tree on FamilySearch, one of the most well used genealogical websites.

Although little evidence of previous research has come to light so far, we became completely intrigued with the wonderful story that began to unfold from the notes and photographs – a marvellous legacy that should, by rights, be reunited with its family.

So, in the hopes of finding some of Kate’s descendants, here is her story.

On a handwritten note dated Tuesday April 15th 1941, Kate wrote of her father:

On November 19th 1841 Ellis Varnam Calkin was born at Hilderstone, Staffordshire, England. His father died when he was eight years old...

... Ellis had to work when he was 12 years old and he supported his mother until she died when he was about 21. He served his 7 years apprenticeship at Hitchcock’s (Drapers) in St Pauls Churchyard, London....

... In 1866, April 5th, he married and on April 8th, he left England for Port Elizabeth, SA, to manage John and Tom Tilbrooks drapery business for two years.


Ellis Varnam Calkin aged about 19 – Framed photo – taken in about 1860


Ellis Varnam Calkin’s letter to his Aunt Sarah not only describes his trip, his arrival in the new colony and his first impressions, but also his reason for leaving England and his bride of only three days:

My very dear Aunt,

One of my greatest pleasures since I have been in the Colony I have experienced this morning in perusing the last two letters you wrote to me when in London, and I sit down for the first time at so great a distance to write to you.

I arrived here on the evening of the 26th of May after a longer voyage than expected by 10 or 15 days. This town is built close to a large Bay, a beautiful Bay, jutting out from the sea 9 miles and about 12 miles wide, the town is on a hill. As I sit writing I can see so far as my eye can carry, Hills, Mountains & Sea.

We have no smoke here, we have a beautiful clear atmosphere, the sun shines nearly every day in the year & we have very little rain.

The colony suffers often for want of rain more than anything, sometimes 12 months and not one hours rain. We have no Railways, the towns are from 100 to 700 miles apart and the travelling is chiefly done by wagons drawn by 16 Bullocks. They travel about 2 miles per hour. There are very few horses, and they are small...

... When we arrived here in the Bay we fired 2 cannons announcing our arrival. We cast anchor about a 1/2 mile from the shore and come ashore in a little boat. Nearing the shore (it was dark) I heard someone call out “Is Mr Calkin in the boat?” I said “Yes, I am.” Up some steps and Mr Tilbrook had come to meet me with the carriage, so we drove down to his house about a mile, had tea and a chat about how his brother was and business and so on...

... We have 5 shops in the Colony, two in this Town and 3 away, the Governor manages one of these here and I the other. I must tell you I have a good situation. You know I have had I consider a roughish patch the last 5 years, but I hope now that I shall begin to find a smoother one...

... You know I worked hard in London to get the position in St. Paul’s Churchyard I had which was a very good one. I was a buyer and had been some time when I left and my situation was worth £130 a year to me, but I attribute my success there to perseverance caused by an occurrence that took place the first year I was in London, or at least in August 1864.

I became engaged to a young lady who lived in London. She was a girl I admired very much for her good qualities, amiability and care, and I determined that as soon as I could see my way clear I would be married. This caused me to push forward and has caused me to leave England for here and try to do better. I signed the agreement to come without saying anything to her or her family, and as my time was so short before I sailed, I found it necessary to mention it to her that same evening.

I told her it was for her benefit as much as mine, that I was going, and that I should send for her to come out to me as soon as I could, providing... well for me to do so.

I found her family, sisters especially, began to make a great trouble of her even thinking of coming so far away from them to me, and that I saw would try all they could to persuade her not to come.

But, as she was anxious to follow me, I made up my mind to get married before coming away, and did so three days before I sailed, knowing that they would consider I had a right to her as my Wife.

So you see Aunt, I am a married man at last, though have not got a wife to live with.

I am in hopes of sending for her in 12 month's time.

2 days before I left London I had a letter from Bernard in which he said they were both very well and very happy...

... I must conclude with best love. Believe me my dear Aunt to Remain your affectionate nephew –

Ellis V Calkin.

A link to the entire letter can be found at the end of the article with sincere thanks to Graham Calkin, Essex.

We return to Kate’s notes:

Mary Ann Elizabeth (Fosler) – my mother – was born in Islington, London North, in 1844. She was married three days before my father left for South Africa. She followed him, coming out on the S.S. Celt, one of the first S.S, in November 1866.

I was born in Port Elizabeth, Dec 29, and one year and eight months after, Ellis Bernard was born Aug 19, 1868. In 1870, on Sep 18th, Florence Mary (Pip) was born in Bathhurst St, G.T. Another girl was born in G.T., Pollie Maud, then in 1871/2, another child, Edgar Varnam, was born. These two younger children died within 2 weeks of each other in Kimberley. My mother was very ill indeed and was ordered by her doctor to go to England. This she did in early 1872, taking Ellis, Pip and myself with her. We were 7 weeks travelling from Kimberley to Port Elizabeth by bullock wagon, by stages, staying at different towns or farms on account of the delicate state of my mother’s health.

I was 6 1⁄2 when we arrived in London in June 1872. We stayed at my Aunt Lottie’s house, for a time I lived at my Grandma’s house, then for a few months I was sent to boarding school.


Mary Ann Elizabeth Calkin (nee Fosler) - CdV


Kate Fosler Calkin, Ellis Bernard Calkin, Florence Mary Calkin (Pip) CdVs - Taken in London


A very early framed portrait of Grandma Fosler – probably treasured possession of her newly married daughter Mary Ann Calkin


Mary Ann Fosler (nee Cooke 1819 -) “Grandma” – Cabinet Card


Grandma Fosler with unknown child– CdV


Aunt Lottie turned out to be Kate’s mother’s sister, Charlotte. Having been widowed very soon after her first marriage, she had married John Henry Chapman, a widower some 14 years her senior who had five sons from his previous marriage (John George born 1851, George Russell born 1852, Robert George born 1855, Frederick George born 1857 and Henry R, born 1850). According to the Census records, John Henry’s occupation was a ‘Printer Compositor’.


John Henry Chapman (1826-1907), Charlotte Anne Chapman nee Fosler (Aunt Lottie, 1840 -) CdVs taken in London


Some fifteen years later, Kate was destined to marry his eldest son, John George Chapman (born 1851), who would have been about 21 at the time of their visit.


A dapper John George Chapman – CdV – taken in about 1867


She gives the following rather confusing description of the Chapmans:

The Chapmans (1) and (2) worked in the Standard newspaper all their lives. The Standard, now the Evening Standard is the oldest newspaper in England – (2) for 54 years, (1) think for about 50 years. (2) became a Sub-Editor. Chapman (3) worked on the same paper in Fleet St as a junior and then as a reporter from the age of 16. At about 21 he joined Disraeli’s paper, “The Hour” at a bigger salary and in its last days became Sporting Editor so saw all the leading events of that time. He also frequently reported at the House of Commons. On the closing down of The Hour (it failed ) he joined Ellis Varnam Calkin in business in Kimberley. [author's note – while it’s difficult to work out who (1) and (2) are, there is no doubt that Chapman (3) is John George]

Kate, in the meantime, was still a child and had some growing up to do. In her own words:

Was taken to England at age about 7, lived there for a while. It was during this time on June 13, 1875, that Sydney Edgar was born and three months from then we returned to Kimberley, John George Chapman coming with us... there I had my 9th birthday in 1877, my 11th birthday in London again. We were five weeks travelling by ox-wagon to PE from Kimberley. That voyage was on the Brittain. We took a house in London, 82 Wildway Grove, Islington N. There after going to school in St Paul’s Rd. I went to Boarding School in Croyden (Mrs Dick’s Academy for Young Ladies) from July 7th 1882 – July 28 1883. In Aug of that year my mother gave up the house, stored the furniture and she and I returned to Kimberley arriving there in Sep, 3 months before my 17th birthday.


Kate Fosler Calkin – CdV – taken 1882


Kate’s parents – Ellis Varnam Calkin (taken 1882) and his wife Mary Ann Elizabeth – Cabinet Cards


While Kate’s mother and the children had been travelling back and forth to England, her father, Ellis Varnam Calkin and husband-to-be, John George Chapman, had been establishing themselves in South Africa. Ellis Varnam “resigned at the end of his first year (in Port Elizabeth) – minimum period – and opened business on his own at Uitenhage, but soon moved on to Grahamstown when he was in business (outfitter) in Bathurst St for 3 1⁄2 years. He moved to Smithfield in the Free State, was swindled by his partner and went bankrupt. Hence the business in Kimberley (Cape Colony) being in the name of J G Chapman and Co. He was very successful in Kimberley for some years, but had a struggle in later years.”

Of John George Chapman she writes, “On the closing down of “The Hour” – it failed- he joined Ellis Varnam Calkin at business in Kimberley (General Dealers). At one time they had 3 shops there.”

Kate married John George Chapman in Kimberley on 1 Jan 1887.


John George Chapman –Cabinet Card


Kate Fosler Calkin - CdV


In 1888, soon after the birth of their first child, Barbara Mary, John George relocated to the Goldfields where he became a broker on the Stock Exchange, for a while, it seems, with some success. Kate joined him there soon afterwards. She writes, “To Johannesburg in 1889 after birth of son, John George James, daughter Nora Kate 1892”


The Chapman children – John George James (Jackie), Barbara Mary and Nora Kate – Cabinet Card


Although it appears that John George was exceptionally well connected, his endeavours on the Stock Exchange failed and a time of financial difficulty followed. “After his failure on the Stock Exchange, he went to Rhodesia on the first steam driven wagon and came away later from Bulawayo in the first steam down train.” During this time Kate and her children were living in Port Alfred, where she notes that they “had a very difficult financial life from 1896 onwards, but always maintained a high standard. Lived very frugally at Port Alfred from 1899-1905”.

She notes that their daughter “Barbara Mary lived with her Grandmother Calkin from the age 7 to about 10 or 11 where her surroundings were of a high standard. Joined her family at Port Alfred at about the beginning of the Boer War and remained with them until the First World War.”


Kate Fosler Chapman with daughter Nora – Cabinet Card


Barbara Mary Chapman with her Grandmother Calkin – Cabinet Card


It is likely Barbara rejoined her family on the death of her beloved grandmother, Mary Ann Elizabeth Calkin in June 1899. Two photograph in the box, one framed in a Union Case, show a bereaved Ellis Varnam Calkin standing on the site of a new grave in the cemetery.


EV Calkin - graveyard


Included in the collection are two Christmas cards dated 1900 that EV Calkin sent to his daughter, Kate and his grandson, Jackie (John George James).


Kate writes of her father, “He was a very able and knowledgeable man. His business was ruined in the Boer War and his house burnt down, but he made good again.”

Ellis Vanam remarried in 1904 and died on 15 Dec 1907.

Of her husband, John George Chapman, however, a rather disillusioned Kate notes, “About the time of the outbreak of the Boer war, he joined his wife and family in Port Alfred and bought a small shop there – in this he again failed. He returned to Johannesburg in 1905 and died there five years later.”

She writes at length about all his high profile acquaintances and sadly ends her memories of him thus, “He was clearly out of place in South Africa.”


John George Chapman (1851-1910) - CdV


The notes on Kate herself record the end of the story, “In 1905 the family returned to Johannesburg. In 1910, after the death of her father was able to build a house in Parkview. Two years later the family moved to the farm Varnam near Grahamstown. During the First World War she married again and farmed with her husband CJ Seller. At his death, she lived in Grahamstown until advancing years made it advisable that she live with her daughter, Mrs McIntosh.”

Kate Fosler Seller (born Calkin) died in Johannesburg on 13 Oct 1944 aged 77.

Barbara Mary, her daughter married Charles Graham Mackintosh on 6 July 1918 in Grahamstown and had  two sons, Allan Graham, born 18 Jan 1920 and Roy Cameron, date of birth unknown.


Barbara Mary Chapman - Cabinet Card


Nora Kate married George Henry Croote on 8 Jan 1914 in Grahamstown and, according to his probate, the couple had two children, Phillis Ann Croote, born 10 Nov 1914 (who married Bernard Maurice Joseph in 1938), and George Henry Croote, born 1 May 1917.


Nora Croote circa 1926


John George James (Jackie) never married and died in Johannesburg on Oct 22, 1976. The photographs shown above only reflect Kate’s direct line, but included in the collection are photographs of aunts, uncles, cousins, niece and friends, most of which are neatly annotated with relevant details. There are a few, however, that are not named.

How a family treasure such as this found its way to a Charity Shop is a complete mystery and the ladies working there would be delighted to see it restored it to Kate’s descendants.

Although they have been contacted by a few collectors, they are holding on to the box for a while in the hopes that this article may lead to a connection with the family.

In the event of no descendants coming to light and the box being sold to a collector, we have endeavoured to safeguard the family’s history by:

  • photographing the entire collection to have it available for anyone who might be researching the family in the future. We will forward same to the Calkin relatives in England;
  • loading the family tree on the Genealogy site FamilySearch and adding the photographs to their relevant profiles, as well as having them on FamilySearch in the form of an album thus making them available to future generations who may wish to research their family.

If anyone reading this article has any knowledge of the descendants of John George Chapman and his wife, Kate Fosler (born Calkin), please contact us via the Heritage Portal to assist in restoring this extraordinary collection to its family (email jamesball01@gmail.com).

Special thanks to the ladies of the charity shop, for allowing me as much time as I needed to work through the collection, and to Graham Calkin of Essex, for giving me permission to use the material on his Calkin Family Website.


  1. Ellis Varnam Calkin’s letter to his Aunt Sarah
  2. Kate’s handwritten notes
  3. The photograph collection

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